Conversation on HS Dropout and College Access Crises

I appreciate Andy giving us the floor. We have some ideas for tackling our nation’s abysmal high school dropout epidemic and for closing the college access gap between the haves and have-nots. Our ideas are rooted in what we are learning firsthand as partners with over 150 low-income high schools across the nation.

College Summit is a national nonprofit organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., working with high schools serving 60,000 students in 10 states. Since 1993, we’ve been equipping urban and rural school districts with a system for creating college culture and increasing college enrollment among low-income students.

We build low-income high schools’ capacity to increase their college enrollment rates. Our partner high schools across the country have achieved significant increases in their college enrollment results over previous school years.

While the benefits of college success are well known, the scope of the problem is not. Research has shown that two-thirds of new jobs require college education. But every year in American high schools, an estimated 200,000 low-income students who have the grades to get into college do not go. Or, as an Education Trust report highlights, “our highest-achieving low-income students actually go directly on to college at rates about the same as our lowest-achieving students from wealthy families.”

To get an even closer look at the problem, consider the recently released study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. The report looks at the extent to which Chicago Public School high school practices and environment influence their students’ participation in the college search and application process. Their research analyst shared with us that among the seniors who were academically qualified to attend a 4-year college, and who aspired to do so, only 57 percent enrolled.* This data reveals a startling picture of a system that sends college-capable students to institutions that are beneath their potential, if they make it to college at all.

We’ve found, based on research and our experience, that there are four key drivers to creating a college-going culture in high schools. I’ll introduce them here, and go into more depth on each driver in future posts.

1. Setting high expectations for results
More than any other American institution, college is the gateway to the middle class and to full participation in American life. Yet accountability for college-going is currently a “no man’s land.” High schools don’t universally measure it, and colleges can only focus on retention and graduation of the students they enroll.

High schools that measure college enrollment rates are communicating an expectation to educators and students that high school is not an end point, but a launching pad for college and career success.

2. “All Kids” approach
Traditional college guidance approaches ask students to “drop-in” to counseling or college info centers. While helpful, that approach has its limits in effectiveness because students on the bubble are the least likely to self-identify as “college material” and visit the centers.

To make college culture the norm, high schools must structure postsecondary planning into the school day to engage all kids. Just as we’ve learned at our high schools, there must be a designated time and place for all students to do college planning and career exploration work. We laud Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, for recently mandating post-secondary planning for all seniors in his district.

3. Educators are key to building college culture
We cannot succeed in building a college-going culture with a guidance system in which each guidance counselor is responsible for the college planning support for hundreds of students. The guidance counselors we work with are the first to tell us this. What we are seeing is that students get their college information from the college-educated adult closest at hand, which often, in the communities we work, is their teacher.

This means that teachers—along with counselors—must be trained to be college positive and college savvy. High schools must provide educators with the professional development and teaching tools that will prepare them for the time they spend with students on college planning.

4. Peer networks drive college culture
Students are a critical lever to driving college culture in their high school. Our experience has shown us that the person most influential to a 15 or 16 year old is a 17 year old. The “Reclaiming the American Dream” report cites one of the factors most likely to increase a student’s odds of completing college was having a significant portion of friends who were also planning to attend. The report also noted that their findings reinforce the views of the American Council on Education, which reports that students are four times more likely to enroll in college if a majority of their friends also plan to attend than if their friends do not.

High schools that tap their seniors to be change agents, and equip them with leadership training, unleash the potential of their students to create their own positive, college-oriented culture.

*Interviews with Eliza Moeller, Lead Qualitative Researcher, and Vanessa Coca, Research Analyst, Chicago Postsecondary Transition Project.

–Guestblogger J.B. Schramm

3 Replies to “Conversation on HS Dropout and College Access Crises”

  1. Great post. I love College Summit.

    Question: Chicago did a study and found that just 3% of black and Hispanic 9th graders ultimately earned a 4-year college degree. Hartford ran the same study: it was 2%.

    Have you been able to construct the “full pipeline?”

    Ie, for Chicago, I’d guess:

    3% graduate from college

    17% graduate high school, enroll in college but flunk out — low skills

    10% graduate high school, could complete college, but never enroll….that’s who you target….

    20% graduate high school and either lack inclination or skills for college….

    50% drop out of high school

    Anyway, that’s what I made up. Do you (or anyone) have the real numbers?

  2. Kudos to College Summit on its important work, but not so on its use of data. Two-thirds of new jobs require college education? But the research linked to that factoid says that, from 2000-10, 4 out of 10 jobs will require some postsecondary education; 40% is a lot less than 66%, and postsecondary isn’t necessarily college. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the next decade, only 22% of job vacancies will require a college degree or more. The closest I could find to that 66% figure is this: about 60% of current employees have “some college,” a phrase that includes entering and leaving college shortly thereafter. Even so, as a lot of secretaries, waiters, etc. know, the percentage of employees with some college tells us nothing about the percentage of jobs requiring a college education. None of this is to say that expanding and, especially, equalizing access to college aren’t highly desirable for all sorts of reasons. But none of them is served by misleading data.

  3. Excellent post. I’d just add a reminder that creating the peer relationships and building the capacity for higher level academics is a people-intensive task. Like is confirmed by other research I’ve read in Eduwonk, the key to getting high poverty schools to the point where instruction and learning is conducted on high levels, is building strong relationships.

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